A Discrete Analysis of Autism Teaching (#228)

Charlie’s teacher has been putting homework worksheets into his backpack. He is just starting the Edmark reading program and learning to direct his eyes from left to right and from top to bottom.

One day at a time in Autismland? One step at a time, until all those separate steps are gathered up into one big triumphant moment of me calling up Jim in his office to blurt “He got it! He’s doing so great!”
Charlie was awake before 7am and, grinning slyly under his big blue blanket, asked for “showah.” I put the finishing touches on his lunch while he turned up the hot water. He pulled on his clothes and took out a bowl of brown rice and an apple. He got his lunchbox and put it halfway into his backpack (here I offered Mom-help). By 7.45am, he had pulled on his socks and shoes, hat coat vest gloves and backpack, and was running in and out the front door onto the porch. We waited a few more minutes on the curb before “red schoolbus” drove up, Charlie hopped on, and I was waving him off to a great school day, followed by a good ABA session and a trip to the barber.

Like riding the bike, haircuts have been Jim’s projects with Charlie. I went along today to see Michael the barber in action. Charlie waited twenty minutes before taking his turn in the chair and did his 100% best, sitting quietly and hands in his lap as the clippers whirred.

“He was really good today!” nodded Michael.

“Good going, bud,” said Jim. “Burritos?”

“Yess,” said Charlie. (No tortilla, just beef and rice and a bit of guacamole for gfcf Charlie.) After an early dinner, it was pajamas, snuggling up in our bed with his blanket and rabbit and pumpkin and books and photos and calling for his favorite songs, and sleep by 8pm.

At the age of thirteen months, Charlie sat in Jim’s lap for his first-ever hair-cut. The next few years were a blur of crying, screaming, diving away from the scissors, tissues, blowing bubbles, and videos he was wailing too loudly to notice. Three years ago, Jim decided he wanted to stop taking Charlie to “those kiddy places. He’s a big boy.”

“So what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m taking Charlie to the barber. He can do it,” said Jim. And haircut by haircut (some with extra strands or fuzz that we tried to even up while Charlie slept), Charlie has learned to sit for one nice buzzcut.

Learning happens most gradually–one skill, one buzz at a time–for Charlie and for many of us.

It was the last five minutes of my elementary Latin class today. We had had the quiz on the past tenses of verbs, the Valentine’s Day vocabulary discussion–cor–“heart,” dulcis–“sweet,” “te amo–“I love you”–and the explanation of reflexive vs. personal pronouns.

What is the difference between that word and that one that looks just like it?” asked a student.

“We have to know that too!!!?????!!” moaned another.

“Are we ever going to read some real Latin? We’re just learning all these bits and pieces,” someone sighed.

I turned from the chalkboard to the computer and pulled up the New Testament in Latin, from the Vulgate and then to the Gospel Secundum Mattheum. “Secundum means ‘according to,'” I said as I scrolled down to 1:23. “et non cognoscebat eam–‘and he was not knowing her’—-Quick! What tense ends in -bat?”

“Immmmmperfect!” a student called out.

“You got it; imperfect denoting continuous or habitual action; peperit filium suum primogenitum et vocavit nomen eius Iesum, ‘and she bore her own first-borne–reflexive!–and she called his name Jesus’—–vocavit is perfect tense. Denoting, an action happening—”

“One time,” said a student.

“She called him by the name of Jesus,” I translated.

Silence for a Wow moment.

I looked at the Latin words and then at my students: “So we learn all those little parts, 1st 2nd 3rd declensions and the tenses of verbs and the hic haec hoc ille illa illud et cetera stuff and we can read the real stuff.”
I will never to be the first Latin teacher to say, the students are bored by all this grammar and having to learn all these little things, having to memorize everything rotely. There’s not a lot of creative or original thinking that goes into learning Latin or into any foreign language–you’ve got to learn the rules and the words and the idiom.

And then, just when you think your head is going to burst, you know why you spent all those nights at your desk with the grammar and the flashcards; with the reading/writing board, the pencils, the slant board, in Charlie’s case. You see, in a flash, how the bits come together into a mosaic. I do sometimes think I see neurons firing off synapses in a hurry in Charlie’s brain; I imagine that some hard-won glue is sticking together the fragments and discrete skills and he’s doing it, he’s getting it.

“Discrete trial teaching” (DTT) is one facet of ABA, “applied behavior analysis.” “Discrete” is from the Latin discerno, which means to “distinguish” or “separate” and so, in DTT, skills are “broken down” into small components and each taught individually, with reinforcement that, in years before, tended to be unrelated to what was being learned. Indeed, while ABA programs for children with autism initially used only DTT, ABA teaching methodology has evolved to integrate “generalization and spontaneity of skills” as well as problem solving skills, emotional understanding, and much more.

Indeed, “keeping it varied and fun” is the phrase I hear the most from our home ABA consultant.

We have all along had to start small, simple and basic with Charlie. His first ABA programs were to “come here” to the table (since he was doing a lot of throwing himself on the floor and howling in those days, pre-September 1999) and “do this” to teach him to imitate (a skill which Aristotle says is basic to humans but which Charlie would not have learned without his cheerful ABA therapists). Our SLP friend Tara taught him how to talk by first teaching Charlie to associate saying a sound with getting a desired object; by manding. We learned how to break down words like bread into crumbs of syllables, to teach Charlie each, to chain them together: “Ccccchhhhh——aaaarrrrr—–llllllllllllllll—–eeee.”

“Analysis” is from the Greek word analuo, “unloose, dissolve.” It is the verb Homer uses to describe how Penelope undoes her weaving every night, only to weave it again the next day.

And so, one day–maybe a few months later, a year later, years later—all the little pieces of Charlie’s learning fit together and we’re hollering, “He said CRACKER!”

Or, “Charlie’s learning how to READ!”

Or, “You got one good haircut—you the man!”

In the words of Terence, Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto: “I am human; nothing human I think alien to me.”

3 Responses to “A Discrete Analysis of Autism Teaching (#228)”
  1. Estee says:

    Indeed, breaking down tasks is so important. Imparting the joy of learning and relating is something we all hope for.

    Sounds like you have a good group of teachers.


  2. SquareGirl says:

    That was a great explanation and analogy of Latin and ABA…I took Latin for five years in Jr. High and High school, by the time I was in my fifth year of it, there were only four of us who opted to take the Latin 4 class (the first two years were 1a and 1b)…we were of course some of the proud self-proclaimed “geeks” of the school and thought it very funny to say “veni, vidi, victa sum!” in regards to Latin (it’s been a while so I hope I got it right). We also used to say…”Latin is a language, as dead as dead can be. First it killed the Romans and now it’s killing me!” (affectionately of course). So now that I’ve read your post, I realize that Latin classes prepared me for my career more than I would have thought!

    Oh yeah, and great job Charlie! I like that Jim decided to take him to a barber becasue he knew that Charlie could do it!

  3. kyra says:

    so proud of charlie and his hair cutting adventures! he always looks so handsome in your pics. i love that face!

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